Sunday, November 25, 2012

Kim Addonizio: Telling The Unknown

I've waited over a decade to write about Kim Addonizio. It's not that I've been deliberating about the value of her poems--like the work of Dorianne Laux, I fell in love with them the first time I heard Kim read from Tell Me (nominated for The National Book Award) in 2000 at City Lights Bookstore. I immediately read everything in print and online by her. The fact is that her poems so powerfully affected my early work that I've had to distance myself from her influence for some time, in order not to feel that I'm guilty of plagiarism. Indeed, I have begun poems with lines from her work (always giving her credit) and, most recently, Matthew Dickman selected a poem of mine for Best New Poets 2012 that has the epigraph, "After Kim Addonizio." The poem, "Break," charts the emotional arc from an innocent game of pool to all of the complications that can come from any passion gone bad--in the same way that Addonizio writes about shooting a gun in her poem, "Target." I even started my poem with the same phrase, "It feels so good," ending line one with "to break a rack of pool balls," instead of "to shoot a gun." After that, the poems diverge down two different paths, although they do share some of the same emotional arc. I'm sure that Addonizio's poem is a better one, but I enjoyed "answering" her poem with my own, and was delighted whenever Dickman selected it for the annual anthology.

I only relay the above story to let readers know that my delay in writing about Addonizio in no way reflects my opinion of her work. On the rare occasion I find myself staring at a blank page, I have my own personal favorite poets to read who always make me fall in love with language again, and who inspire me with new ideas to write about: Larry Levis, Michael Waters, Malena Morling, Dorianne Laux, and Kim Addonizio all are on that list. Addonizio's special gift to her readers is that her body of work is infused with a language of hunger, a language of need, a language of love--not with a sentimental language of the heart, but of a visceral language of the gut--not in narratives that immortalize the lofty ideals of "the heroic few," but in stories that reveal the manic, ephemeral, tortured pleasures that we all borrow from whatever world is given to us.

How else to describe the following two openings (I could have shared dozens), that pull at us to enter the poet's world, to feel her passions, to lie awake recounting her obsessions, to act upon her compulsions--until we are not content to merely listen, but are moved to rise from our seats, mount the stage, and with our own voices answer her words with our own--because the world she is writing about is our world, as well.

The Numbers

How many nights have I lain here like this, feverish with plans,
with fears, with the last sentence someone spoke, still trying to finish
a conversation already over? How many nights were wasted
in not sleeping, how many in sleep--I don't know
how many hungers there are, how much radiance or salt, how many times
the world breaks apart, disintegrates to nothing and starts up again
in the course of an ordinary hour. I don't know how God can bear
seeing everything at once: the falling bodies, the monuments and burnings,
the lovers pacing the floors of how many locked hearts. I want to close
my eyes and find a quiet field in fog, a few sheep moving toward a fence.
I want to count them, I want them to end.


You know how hard it is sometimes just to walk on the streets
...downtown, how everything enters you
the way the scientists describe it--photons streaming through
...bodies, caroming off the air, the impenetrable brick
of buildings an illusion--sometimes you can feel how porous you
...are, how permeable, and the man lurching in circles
on the sidewalk, cutting the space around him with a tin can and
...saying "Uhh! Uhhhh! Uhh! over and over
is part of it, and the one in gold chains leaning against the glass of
...the luggage store is, and the one who steps toward you
from his doorway, meaning to ask something apparently simple, "What's the time," something you know
you can no longer answer; he's part of it, the body of the world
...which is also yours and which keeps insisting
you recognize it. And the trouble is you do, but it's happening, among the crowds and exhaust smells,
and you taste every greasy scrap of paper, the globbed spit you
...step over, your tongue is as thick with dirt
as though you've fallen on your hands and knees to lick the oil-
...scummed street, as sour as if you've been drinking
the piss of those men passing their bottle in the little park with its
...cement benches and broken fountain.

In conclusion, I share "Flood," the ultimate poem from Tell Me. If you can read it aloud by yourself at night in bed after making love to your lover who is now asleep beside you, and turn the light off, roll over and go to sleep yourself, then you are probably not called to be a poet. If you can read it sitting alone waiting for the bus that will take you back home after breaking up with your lover for the first time or the last, close the cover of the book, put it in your purse or pocket and pull out the cold, day-old sandwich you've been holding, stand up and get on that bus for whatever coast you're heading to, dozing dreamless between stops for the next 20 hours, then you're probably not called to be a poet. But if after reading the first few lines of the poem, you can barely hold it still in your hands, can barely make it to the end, before you start feeling all over your body for a pencil, a pen, a napkin--start writing somewhere, in the margins of the page you're holding if you have to--and write and write like the waters rising in the most fierce storm you've ever witnessed, without stopping, until your lover wakes up or leaves or returns, or the alarm goes off, or your boss calls wondering where you are, or your bus breaks down or arrives or doesn't...

Then you might be ready to answer the call of the poet. The call of every poet who has ever written. The call of Kim Addonizio. "Tell me!" You don't know enough, you say? You don't have to know. You just need to live. Live and tell. In the words of Kim on her dedication page (for Dorianne):

Let us sing together: know? We know nothing.


The light illuminates nothing, and the wise man teaches nothing.
What does human language say? What does the water in the rock say?


How images enter you, the shutter of the body
clicking when you're not even looking:
smooth chill of satin sheets, piano keys, a pastry's glazy crust
floating up, suddenly, so the hairs along your arm
lift in that current of memory, and your tongue tastes
the sweet salt of a lover as he surges
against you, plunges toward the place you can't
dive into but which is deepening each moment
you are alive, the black pupil widening,
the man going down and in, the food and
champagne and music and light, there is no bottom to this,
silt and murk of losses that won't ever settle,
and the huge unsleeping fish, voracious for pleasure,
and the soundless fathoms where nothing
yet exists, this minute, the next, the last
breath let out and not returning, oh hold
on to me as the waters rise, don't be afraid,
we are going to join the others, we are going
to remember and tell them everything.

In the words of Larry Levis: "I'm going to stare at the whorled grain of wood in this make it confess everything!"

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

William Carpenter: Breaking Down The Line To Build The Poem

I discovered William Carpenter in the anthology, Poetspeak, circa the mid-eighties, thumbing through it, after reading a poem there by my old professor, Keith Wilson. I was immediately taken with Carpenter's poem, "Fire," not because of its poetic devices, but because of its story and theme--what in school we used to call content. Some have challenged a portion of Carpenter's work being called "poetry"--being so narrative, highly enjambed, and without stanzas. Why, indeed, is this piece considered a "poem," rather than "micro-fiction," or a "short short?"


This morning, on the opposite shore of the river
I watch a man burning his own house.
It is a cold day, and the man wears thick gloves
and a fur hat that gives him a Russian look.
I envy his energy, since I am still on the veranda
in my robe, with morning coffee, my day not
even begun, while my neighbor has already piled
spruce boughs against his house and poured
flammable liquids over them to send a finger
of black smoke into the air, a column surrounded
by herring gulls, who think he's having a barbecue
or has founded a new dump. I hadn't known what labor
it took to burn something. Now the man is working
at such speed, he's like the criminal in a silent
movie, as if he had a deadline, as if he had
to get his house burned by a certain time, or it
would be all over. I see his kids helping, bringing
him matches and kindling, and I'd like to help out
myself, I'd like to bring him coffee and a bagel,
but the Penobscot river separates us, icebergs
the size of small ships drifting down the tide.
Moreover, why should I help him when I have a house
myself, which needs burning as much as anyone's?
It has begun to leak. I think it has carpenter ants.
I hear them making sounds at night like writing, only
they aren't writing, they are building small tubular
cities inside the walls. I start burning in the study,
working from within so it will go faster, so I can
catch up, and soon there's a smoke column on either
shore, like a couple of Algonquins having a dialogue
on how much harder it is to destroy than to create.
I shovel books and poems into the growing fire. If
I burn everything, I can start over, with a future
like a white rectangle of paper. Then I notice
my neighbor has a hose, that he's spraying his house
with water, the coward, he has bailed out, but I
keep throwing things into the fire: my stamps,
my Berlioz collection, my photos of nude people,
my correspondence dating back to grade school.
Over there, the fire engines are reaching his home.
His wife is crying with relief, his fire's extinguished.
He has walked down to the shore to see the ruins
of the house across the river, the open cellar,
the charred timbers, the man laughing and dancing
in the snow, who has been finally freed from his
possessions, who has no clothes, no library, who has
gone back to the beginning, when we lived in nature:
no refuge from the elements, no fixed address.

My answer to why is "Fire" a poem? is because of the way its creator treats "the line." Unlike the genre known as "prose-poetry," which leaves the line breaks mainly to the whim of the typewriter carriage (that dates me), or to the margin settings of the word document, in the above, each line is crafted to end precisely where the poet chooses, in order to maximize the rhythm, to heighten the language, or to deepen the theme(s). In other words, language is "forwarded" ahead of all else--even ahead of story--and the line, rather than the sentence, becomes the basic syntactical unit. That's why "Fire" is a poem, rather than a piece of prose!

Notice the difference between the following two ways of breaking lines 6 and 7:

"I am still on the veranda in my robe, with morning coffee, my day not even begun..."

"in my robe, with morning coffee, my day not
even begun..."

The first is a complete thought, with emphasis on "the thought, the action, the objects that comprise it--the veranda, his robe, coffee, the day barely starting..."

But in the second, because the line breaks at "not," our brains connect the three words, "my day not" and make the phrase mean something, even though it does not conform to a syntactical norm. "My day is not what? A day? Anything? My day is nothing? Like all other days, this day has come to not? To naught?" All of these possibilities (and more) flash across synaptic gaps quicker than we can move our eyes to the beginning of the next line. And, even though we may not consciously acknowledge all (or any) of these flashes of insight, they color the next (and every subsequent) line in the poem, enriching them, slanting them, nudging them forwards (and backwards) to amplify meaning (and sound, and visual effects).

Check out some of the other terrific line breaks in this poem:

"my neighbor....has already poured flammable liquids over them to send a finger/
of black smoke into the air" (break between lines 9 and 10). "To send a finger" immediately brings to mind "flipping the bird," and colors the tone of the entire poem, foreshadowing the speaker's own defiant gesture of setting his own house on fire."

"I start burning in the study,/working from within so it will go faster, so I can/
catch up, and soon there's a smoke column on either/shore..." (breaks between lines 27, 28 and 29). Breaking the line after "study" gives us reason to pause and reflect for a moment on how "study" might mean more than the physical room--and we find we are correct in the next line with "working from within"--within the house and within the self, the part of us that studies on things. Reflecting upon things (more difficult when weighed down with "things") ignites a fire within that moves as fast as the physical fire without ("it will go faster, so I can"). These layers of meaning would be very difficult to tap into without the particular line breaks that Carpenter chose.

Three lines down, is the line "I shovel books and poems into the growing fire. If"
followed by "I burn everything, I can start over, with a future..."

What a beautiful statement about language and poetry: that the writings of authors and poets are burned (metabolized) and the result is an open-ended If, standing at the edge of the white-page cliff of possibility. This idea would never have come through with such power if the genre used to express it had been prose, if the form had been the following two sentences:

"I shovel books and poems into the growing fire."
"If I burn everything, I can start over."

There is something else quite apparent that the enjambed lines do for this poem: they move the insistent energy forward, mirroring the fire and the accelerating response of the man setting it, who started

"...working from within, so [the fire] will go faster, so [he] can...."

These are just a few examples of the precise control of his lines that Carpenter has used in order to regulate the emotional temperature in "Fire," carefully measuring their lengths, breaking them at just the right words. The process he surely went through to do so--breaking down each line into its constituent parts, piecing them back together, building them into a structure much stronger than the original words or ideas taken by themselves--enacts the theme of the piece itself.

But then I expect nothing less from a poem. Or from William Carpenter. Just another poet doing his job. Breaking down the line to build the poem. Burning down his house to start all over again.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Adelia Prado: Poet of "Excarnation!"

Upon first reading Ellen Watson's translations of Adelia Prado's poems comprising The Alphabet in the Park, what was astonishing to me was not that they are full of appetites of the flesh that seek the face of God, but that all of Prado's disparate, overlapping, contradictory, obsessive, intertwining impulses seem to appear in each poem. Each one is a mini-song of herself on speed. I am reminded of Whitman's "Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. (I am large and I contain multitudes.)"

Although Prado is a practicing Catholic, rather than looking for inspiration or revelation from above, each of Prado's poems are tightly packed singularities, exploding their carnality into the face of God with a "big bang"--an antithesis to the incarnation--"The Word made flesh"--creating an "excarnation," making Flesh itself The Word, and making God the better for it. Over and over in The Alphabet in the Park, Prado's poems risk challenging traditional faith, as she does in "Guide":

Poetry will save me.
I feel uneasy saying this, since only Jesus
is Saviour, as a man inscribed
(of his own free will)
on the back of the souvenir crucifix he brought home
from a pilgrimage to Congonhas.

But by the end of poem, rather than destroying faith, her assault has transformed itself (as is most often the case) into a radically new proclamation:

Poetry will save me. I won't tell this to the four winds,
because I'm frightened of experts, excommunication,
afraid of shocking the fainthearted. But not of God.
What is poetry, if not His face touched
by the brutality of things?

Poetry and faith are the same with Prado. They entail bringing everything from the body and the world which she has been told all of her life that she must leave behind on her spiritual pilgrimage: her appetites, her doubts, her nicotene-stained fingers, her earth-stained hands. And, as well, she brings to poetry a confused God:

Two Ways

From inside geometry
God looks at me and I am terrified.
He makes the incubus descend on me.
I yell for Mama,
I hide behind the door
where Papa hangs his dirty shirt;
they give me sugar water to calm me,
I speak the words of prayers.
But there's another way:
if I sense He's peeking at me,
I think about brands of cigarettes,
I think about a man in a red cape going out
in the middle of the night to worship the Blessed Sacrament,
I think about hand-rolled tobacco, train whistles, a farm woman
with a basket of "pequi" fruit all aroma and yellow.
Before he knows it, there I am in His lap.
I pull on His white beard.
He throws me the ball of the world,
I throw it back.

My favorite poem of Prado's is "Dysrhythmia." I admire it for its prosody of disjunction and meld--do I contradict myself? Then very well! Listen to its opening lines that climax with a statement that might jar both "sinner" and "saint" alike!


Old people spit with absolutely no finesse
and bicycles bully traffic on the sidewalk.
The unknown poet waits for criticism
and reads his verses three times a day
like a monk with his book of hours.
The brush got old and no longer brushes.
Right now what's important
is to untangle the hair.
We give birth to life between our legs
and go on talking about it till the end,
few of us understanding:
it's the soul that's erotic.

Adelia Prado: Poet Excarnate. Poet of the flesh made into "The Word."

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Best American Poetry 2012: The Rest of the Best

I had planned over the next several days to post a separate blog on each of several more poets/poems from Best American Poetry 2012--my personal best in this year's issue. There are, however, so many additional poets I want to write about that I'm going to condense these BAP poets into one final post, and then move on.

Jane Hirshfield's, "In a Kitchen Where Mushrooms Were Washed"

At the risk of losing some of my readers, I'll be very honest: I don't like many of Jane Hirshfield's poems. I find most of them simplistic, more about expressing pet ideas of the poet than about forwarding language, or creating art. Happily, "In a Kitchen Where Mushrooms Were Washed" subverted all of my expectations. Its diction, its themes, its tropes, its typography all work together to create heightened language in the service of nothing except for art. Since it is a short poem, here it is in its entirety:

In a Kitchen Where Mushrooms Were Washed

In a kitchen where mushroom were washed,
the mushroom scent lingers.

As the sea must keep for a long time the scent of the whole.

As a person who's once loved completely,
a country once conquered,
does not release that stunned knowledge.

They must want to be found, those strange-shaped, rising morels,
clownish puffballs.

Lichens have served as a lamp wick.
Clean-burning coconuts, olives.
Dried salmon, sheep fat, a carcass of petrel set blazing:
light that is fume and abradement.

Unburnable mushrooms are other.
They darken the air they come into.

Theirs the scent of having been traveled, been taken.

Steve Orlen's, "Where Do We Go After We Die"

Orlen has created a lyrical-narrative poem at its best, all classical stages of an interesting story neatly packed into a stanza-less box, with room enough for several moments of the ineffable. The setting is the favorite bar of the deceased and friends after the funeral. The conversation begins with the big question of what happens after death. Orlen tells us "The question/Commands and divides them." He then, in turn, has his characters each give us their versions: "One sees the pictograph/Of the great wheel; another, a figure of closed eyes,/Another, the heavenly throne surrounded by a choir of angels,/Remembered from Sunday School."

More opinions. More brew. Then stories about Jon, the recently deceased. Other friends who have died. Then Orlen finds the lyrical that is always residing in the material, waiting for the poet to titrate it out with the magic of language:

...they drink, they complicate,
They begin to forget the quirks they loved
And the spirit that flows like a river powerful enough
To ignore the seasons. The lights flash off and on,
The bartender is drying the last of the glasses,
Stories slide under the chairs into the shadows,
Speech reverts to its ancient, parabolic self--"Yea,
Though I walk through the valley"--
And actions lose their agency--"It came to pass"--
The things of the world become scarce,
And what's left spreads its wings
And flies around among them, like bats at dusk.

Lynne Sharon Schwartz's, "The Afterlife"

"The Afterlife" is even more narrative than Orlen's poem. Although less lyrical, it certainly is musical with sound work like "I dreamed I was in the afterlife" and "Who should I search for? The answer came quick: my mother."

And so the story of the poem develops: everyone is looking for her mother--even all of the mothers, on their own quests, no time to help their children with theirs. Hear the words of the narrator's own mother:

Here is no help, no love, only the looking. This
is what death means, my child, this is how we pass
eternity, looking

for the love we no longer know how to give.

This is not just another poem about death. It is a poem that gives insight into why poets seem to gravitate to it--because it is emblematic of life.

Natasha Trethewey's, "Dr. Samuel Adolphus Cartwright on Dissecting the White Negro, 1951"

I would be remiss in an article about my personal "Best of the Best" if I failed to mention another friend of this blogspot (see my November 7 post, "Natasha Trethewey: A Poet Laureate for our Time"). Natasha Trethewey's powerful poem of historical witness represents the first section of three in the longer poem, "The Americans" from her recent book, "Thrall." I will not delve deeply into the poem here, but rather will point my readers to the longer work, in order to be able to appreciate it as fully as it deserves.

In the same spirit, I must mention the final selection in my own person "best of the best", and perhaps the best poem of all that Mark Doty selected for this year's BAP anthology:

Spencer Reece's, "The Road to Emmaus"

Fully thirteen pages long, Reece's six-part condensation of conversations he had with a Catholic nun of the Franciscan order over a seven-year period, is also too long to even begin an analysis here. I will mention that the title is from the New Testament story of 2 disciples traveling the road to Emmaus after Jesus' death, and their encounter with a stranger. I will also mention that Reece comments in the contributor's notes that "[the] experience of not realize the love that is in front of you until it is gone resonates deeply for me." For anything more, I point you to the actual poem, in the actual anthology, Best American Poetry 2012.

In closing, I remind readers that the poems I have written about from this year's BAP are merely my personal favorites. In the same way that Mark Doty said he could only really represent his choices as "Seventy-Five Poems Mark Likes," and went on to say, "but who'd buy that?", I can only say that these last few blog posts could be collectively entitled "Nine Poems from BAP 2012 that Terry Likes." It would be interesting to hear back from any of you whose taste might agree or disagree with mine.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Best American Poetry 2012: Kerrin McCadden: Collisions & Creations

In her contributor's note to BAP 2012, Kerrin McCadden writes:

I like collisions. I like to bang things together inside a poem and use a tangle of rubber bands to hold it together. In this poem ["Becca"], there is a clear story, and, I believe, a clear understory, but there are also a pile of antique bird books, Kafka, geography, my standing love of etymology and fonts, Mary Oliver, and the terror and thrill of letting children go. There is something in the gathering storm of wide and disparate reading that charges me for writing. I am fond of a coming-of-age poem that leans on Kafka, of a wish for a beautiful life that leans on tattooing, of a man who creates beauty all day by inking people's skin but does not know what a stanza is--who thinks its a kind of bird.

Living in this world for any time at all will expose one to an experience of something constructive being created from something destructive.

Creation comes from collision. The heavy element of iron that carries the oxygen in our blood to sustain our lives is born from the collision of molecules deep in the core of an aging star, losing their identities as hydrogen and helium, exploding in a climactic burst, spreading not only iron, but gold, silver, platinum--all of the metals we hold as precious--into the cosmos. And some four billion years ago a Mars-sized planet collided with Earth, a glancing blow that stripped away material that coalesced in orbit to form our moon.

Last night in San Rafael (CA), I attended a launch part for the book, Creating On Purpose, by Anodea Judith and Lion Goodman. Among other things, I learned from Lion that the "cide" of "decide" means to cut. When one decides, one "cuts off" some possibilities in order to gain others. And I took away from Anodea a satisfying saying: "We can have anything, but we can't have everything."

And so it is with our poems. They start with a word, a line, a "vision" and then expose themselves to a larger (infinite?) universe of words, images, and ideas, where the original material is pummeled and reshaped--even some of it destroyed--in order to "re-vision" the work, in order to bring the act of creation through the poem's entire evolution, not just to its inception.

And so it is with our lives...

Here, then, is the conclusion of McCadden's poem, "Becca," after Becca has "decided" on her tattoo:

...............................She lies
on the bed while the artist marks her back,
his needle the harrow for her sentence. Make of
my life a place to stand, stopping-places, a series
of rooms, stances, "stare, stantia, stay." She has
shown him a bird she wants perched above the final
word, "stanza." It is a barn swallow--ink blue flash.
He says, toward the end, so she can know it will hurt
to ink so much blue. "I am filling in the stanza now,"
and he stings her right shoulder again and again,
filling the room of the bird. Make of my life
a poem, she asks me and him and her mother
as she walks away, make of my life something
wild, she says. I watch her strike out across
Number 10 Pond, the tattoo flashing with each stroke
and there is barely enough time to read it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Best American Poetry 2012: Hanging out with Friends: Alicia Ostriker

Alicia Ostriker is a friend of "The Widening Spell." (See "The Crack in Everything: Metaphor and Love in the Poetry of Alicia Ostriker," 07-12-12.) Her poems connect with the literary canon all the way back to the first Greek poets, to Blake (a favorite of hers), to Whitman (in particular), and to countless other master poets who have sung the pain and the passion of life--both of humans and of all other sentient beings.

And Ostriker is also a friend of Best American Poetry. Her significant work has found its place in many of its issues. "Song" is a deceptively simple poem in three stanzas that I share here as gateway to the best poetry being written today, and to her best poetry written over several decades.


Some claim the origin of song
was a war cry
some say it was a rhyme
telling the farmers when to plant and reap
don't they know the first song was a lullaby
pulled from a mother's sleep
said the old woman

A significant
factor generating my delight in being
alive this springtime
is the birdsong
that like a sweeping mesh has captured me
like diamond rain I can't
hear it enough said the tulip

lifetime after lifetime
we surged up the hill
I and my dear brothers
thirsty for blood
our beautiful songs
said the dog

Unless you know Ostriker's work, you might not see "Song" as her metaphoric "Song of Herself" (with all connections intended), looking backward "lifetime after lifetime" and forward, singing "a lullaby" to the future, while celebrating the present "delight in being/alive in this springtime." Each stanza not only connects with all three dimensions, but also with noteworthy images in her (and in her poetry guides') previous work.

In "the first song...a lullaby/pulled from a mother's sleep/said the old woman" of stanza 1, I hear Whitman singing of "The little one sleep[ing] in its cradle" and then "lift[ing] the gauze...and silently brush[ing] away flies."

In "the birdsong/that like a sweeping mesh has captured me" of stanza 2, I hear the "tuwees" of "Birdcall," Ostriker's opening poem in her book, No Heaven (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005):

Tuwee, calls a bird near the house,
Tuwee, cries another, downhill in the woods.
No wind, early September, beeches and pines,

Sumac aflame, tuwee, tuwee, a question and a faint
But definite response, tuwee, tuwee, as if engaged
In a conversation expected to continue all afternoon.

Or in a conversation expected to continue for lifetimes.

And in "surg[ing] up the hill/I and my dear brothers/thirsty for blood/uttering/our beautiful songs/said the dog," of stanza 3, I hear Ostriker's other dogs, part of the pack of "The Dogs at Live Oak Beach, Santa Cruz"

As if there could be a world
Of absolute innocence
In which we forget ourselves

The owners throw sticks
And half-bald tennis balls
Toward the surf
And the happy dogs leap after them
As if catapulted--

These "black dogs, tan dogs,/tubes of glorious muscle" are not the same dogs as the ones "thirsty for blood," because their beach world "of absolute innocence" is not the world where their brothers "surge up the hill" (in order to capture it, not enjoy it). They still have the same teeth that "snap and sink...into floating wood." But these teeth are now in the service of something outside of (but not greater than) themselves:

[They] bound back to their owners
Shining wet, with passionate speed
For nothing,
For absolutely nothing but joy.

This "Song" of Alicia Ostriker is the song of all of us. It too, is for nothing but joy."

Alicia, you can come to the party anytime, because you bring the party with you!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Best American Poetry 2012: James Kimbrell at The Party!

Anthologies are private literary parties. You can hang out all evening with old friends, make new acquaintances, spend the night, leave whenever and with whomever you want. But the best part is the morning after--if you wake up with someone in bed with you, you can see him or her to the door before breakfast, and never have to hear their voice again--or you can invite them to stay, spend the day, see the city together, start a relationship. The decision is all yours.

James Kimbrell is a poet new to me from Best American Poetry 2012 that I will definitely follow up on.

About "How to Tie a Knot," Kimbrell comments in his contributor's note that he "wanted to ground this poem in a physical hunger that might give voice to a more or less spiritual desire, the desire for access to the real, whatever it might finally be." With antecedents reminiscent of St. Paul's famous "Love Chapter" in I Corinthians ("If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels..."), Kimbrell opens the poem:

If I eat a diet of rain and nuts, walk to the P.O.
in a loincloth, file for divorce from the world of matter,
say "not-it!" to the sea oats, "not-it!" to the sky
above the disheveled palms, "not-it!" to the white or green oyster boats
and the men on the bridge with their fishing rods
that resemble so many giant whiskers,
if I repeat "this is not-it, this is not why I'm waiting here,"
will I fill the universe with all that is not-it
and allow myself to grow very still in the center of
this fishing town in winter?

But, as can be seen, unlike St. Paul's consequent pronouncement ("and have not love--I become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal"), Kimbrell's consequent "then" statement is not a statement, but a question. Thus does his syntax begin the unwinding of the poem, even as it begins to bring together two disparate stanzas, the second of which informs us:

I came out here to pare things down,
wanted to be wind, simple as sand, to hear each note
in the infinite orchestra of waves fizzling out
beneath the rotting dock at five o'clock in the afternoon
when the voice that I call "I" is a one-man boat
slapping toward the shore of a waning illusion.

After reading "How to Tie a Knot" I have no illusion about Kimbrell's ability to join together his "physical hunger" with "spiritual desire" as he fishes for his "fat flounder out there/deep in [its] need...flesh both succulent and flakey/when baked with white wine, lemon and salt, [its] eyes/rolling toward their one want when the line jerks, and the reel/ clicks, and the rod bends, and you give up/the ocean floor for a mouthful of land."

James Kimbrell leaves me hungry for more. Thankfully he has two books, The Gatehouse Heaven (1998) and My Psychic (2006), both from Sarabande Books, which I intend on devouring soon. And if I'm ever in Tallahassee, Florida, where he is an associate professor of English at Florida State University, I will try to be there when he is reading--maybe there will be a party!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Best American Poetry 2012

By series editor David Lehman's own admission, each annual anthology bearing the title Best American Poetry cannot really have assembled the best 75 poems published in American journals in any previous year. Speaking to the precariousness of such a claim, John Ashbery, guest editor of the first issue in 1988, asked Lehman if it had to be called Best American Poetry. "Couldn't it be Pretty Good American Poetry, or even Just OK Poetry of 1988?" he inquired. Ashbery knew full well that he had not even read every poem published in 1988, much less had he the authority to pronounce his pick as best in an absolute sense.

Thus, each issue becomes 75 poems that the particular guest judge likes--a kind of annual list of poems published that year recommended by an established poet to take with you in case you find yourself stranded on a desert island. As such, each annual addition to the series is mostly palatable and, occasionally, brilliant, if not quintessential. It is a slice of the annual life of poetry taken from the offerings of some of the most highly acclaimed poets from some of the most highly acclaimed journals in America. Each annual judge has free reign so, naturally, his or her favorite poets are selected. Over time, many of the same names appear year after year, fostering the image that American poetry has--that of being a closed club. New poets and poems published in lesser known journals occasionally make their way into an issue. To Mark Doty's credit, BAP 2012 has more than its share of these relative unknowns. Not surprising to me, I enjoyed reading it more than I have in several years--both for the newcomers, and for the fine work presented from old friends.

One such poem is "The Imagined" by Stephen Dunn, originally published in Here and Now and later in The New Yorker (with my apologies for the intrusion of the word [indented] to make up for the programming's inability to actually indent):

The Imagined

If the imagined woman makes the real woman
seem bare-boned, hardly existent, lacking in
gracefulness and intellect and pulchritude,
and if you come to realize the imagined woman
can only satisfy your imagination, whereas
the real woman with all her limitations
can often make you feel good, how, in spite
of knowing this, does the imagined woman
keep getting into your bedroom, and joining you
at dinner, why is it that you always bring her along
on vacations when the real woman is shopping,
or figuring the best way to the museum?

[Indented] And if the real woman

has an imagined man, as she must, someone
probably with her at this very moment, in fact
doing and saying everything she's ever wanted,
would you want to know that he slips in
to her life every day from a secret doorway
she's made for him, that he's present even when
you're eating your omelette at breakfast,
or do you prefer how she goes about the house
as she does, as if there were just the two of you?
Isn't her silence, finally, loving? And yours
not entirely self-serving? Hasn't the time come,

[Indented] once again, not to talk about it?

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Spencer Reece: Clerk, Poet, Priest

I really don't know why I haven't posted about Spencer Reece before now. His work has been formative for mine, and his faith in faith is an example to all who write in obscurity. Reece quietly practiced his art for nineteen years--submitting his first manuscript to every contest, receiving rejection after rejection. Revising. Then submitting again. Nineteen years. Year one: no. Year two: no. Years three through eighteen: no. Year nineteen: won the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference Bakeless Prize. What if he had quit after five years? Ten? Eighteen? I would never have read the following poem, would never have memorized it and recited it time and time again on my morning walk.


--"I quite expect to end my life caring most for a place. --E.M. Forester

Pine trees stir in a chorus of darkness.
The lake taps the shore as if to tell me something.
A light rain increases the abstractions, all edges blur.
Dark tilled fields stretch for miles.
The Midwest settles into my chest.
Colts bolt across untouched Dakota acres
alive with the cymbal-smash of affectionate caresses.
Farms, barns, somnolent cows, empty gravel roads and distant houses
make up the landscape I walk in, where once, a long tine ago,
Indians slept and walked, dissolving into the shadows with tenderness.
On Andy Cleland's farm, the one closest to the lake,
where cattails flourish at the water's edge,
there is one huge hill, vacant of shrubbery.
I was told once it was an Indian burial mound
and that was why no tree or bush would grow on that hill.
All these years later and the hill is still bald,
whispering softly as the revolutions of the sea,
echoing with the mouths of the vanquished.
Sheep maraud across the hill's back,
exhilarated by the dirt smells born again by spring,
the wind haunted with the songs of comrades now gone.
The rest of this panorama is immense, dark, impenetrable, unstructured.
But if you look closely in the left-hand corner,
I can just be distinguished from the blue blue brilliance of all this land,
a tiny figure, no bigger than a grass blade, a shadow hugged by shadows,
heading home after a long walk nowhere,
encircled by a halo of rocks, trees, crops, rivers, clouds--
by every blessed thing conspiring together to save my life.

Of course, I identify with Reece partly because he spent several years as an assistant manager in a men's clothing store--part of a famous chain. The title poem of his first book, "The Clerk's Tale," is a layered combination bildungsroman and diatribe against the superficiality of capitalism. After poignant description after description of his fellow salesmen, customers, and work day, Reece closes the store and the poem with the following lines:

The lights go off, one by one--
the dressing room lights, the mirror lights.
Then it is very late. How late? Eleven?
We move to the gate. It goes up.
The gate's grating checkers our cheeks.
This is the Mall of America.
The light is bright and artificial,
yet not dissimilar to that found in a Gothic cathedral.
You must travel down the long hallways to the exits
before you encounter natural light.
One final formality: the manager checks our bags.
The old homosexual reaches into his over-the-shoulder leather bag--
the one he bought on his European travels
with his companion of many years.
He finds a stick of lip balm and applies it to his lips
liberally, as if shellacking them.
Then he inserts one last breath mint
and offers one to me. The gesture is fraternal
and occurs between us many times.
As last, we bid each other good night.
I watch him fade into the many-tiered parking lot,
where the thousands of cars have come
and are now gone. This is how our day ends.
This is how our day always ends.
Sometimes snow falls like rice.
See us take to our dimly lit exits,
disappearing into the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul;
Minneapolis is sleek and St Paul,
named after the man who had to be shown,
is smaller, older, and somewhat withdrawn.
Behind us, the moon pauses over the vast egg-like dome of the mall.
See us loosening our ties among you.
We are alone.
There is no longer any need to express ourselves.

It is of interest to me that Reece worked several years as a clerk, writing poetry in the middle of the night, forging a direction for a life quite different from that of his fellow salesmen--and then when his poetry gained the attention it deserved ("The Clerk's Tale" is the only poem ever to have been published as the entire back page of The New Yorker) he won a fellowship which allowed him to work part time in the store and enter the priesthood. His new book, The Road to Emmaus is due out in 2013. Its title poem appears in The Best American Poetry 2012, and I heartily recommend it. His first poems, however, will always be favorites of mine. I end with the haunting, "Tonight," whose Everyman ending, for me, ranks among the all-time greats!


You are being born. Feels good.
Something enormous kisses you.
Its eye surveys your revolutions.
Relaxed in your new nudity,

you work your labyrinthine ears,
those perfect disciples,
registering all that hums, ticks.
O you encyclopedia you,

you do not know what I know,
how blank the cold world can grow.
But let the addendums come later.
I listen to the dust from the city

gather on the necks of the saints
at the hospital's exits I exit.
And so I say to you yes you:
everyone's a fugitive. Everyone.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Dorianne Laux: Mining the Lyrical from the Status Quotidian

I believe in love at first read. One poem, even one line, is sometimes all that it takes to forge a bond between reader and poet that will last a lifetime. We've all have our experiences of falling for certain poetry gods or goddesses. Collectively they become our personal canon. We turn to them when we are in distress, can barely take one more breath or get out of bed to recite one more line of our lives. We carry their pocket books of prayers in our purses, our backpacks, read them during our thirty-minute lunch hours, our mandated labor law breaks from waiting tables, from ringing up sales in department stores and retail shops for gifts that no one wants, as we worship at the altar of doing exactly what we want to do for one more minute.

Dorianne Laux is a member of the ranks of my personal, poetic hosts of heaven. How can one not be saved by poetry upon reading her following poem?


When I was young and had to rise at 5 am
I did not look at the lamplight slicing
through the blinds and say: Once again
I have survived the night. I did not raise
my two hands to my face and whisper:
This is the miracle of my flesh. I walked
toward the cold water waiting to be released
and turned the tap so I could listen to it
thrash through the rusted pipes.
I cupped my palms and thought of nothing.

I dressed in my blue uniform and went to work.
I served the public, looked down on its
balding skulls, the knitted shawls draped
over its cancerous shoulders, and took its orders,
wrote up or easy or scrambled or poached
in the yellow pads' margins and stabbed it through
the tip of the fry cook's deadly planchette.

Those days I barely had a pulse. The manager
had vodka for breakfast, the busboys hid behind
the bleach boxes from the immigration cops
and the head waitress took ten percent
of our tips and stuffed them in her pocket
with her cigarettes and lipstick. My feet
hurt. I balanced the meatloaf-laden trays.
Even the tips of my fingers ached.

I thought of nothing except sleep, a T.V. set's
flickering cathode gleam washing over me,
baptizing my greasy body in its watery light.
And money, slipping the tassel of my coin purse
aside, opening the silver clasp, staring deep
into that dark sacrificial abyss.

What can I say about that tie, those years
I leaned against the rickety balcony on my break,
smoking my last saved butt?
It was sheer bad luck when I picked up
the glass coffee pot and spun around
to pour another cup. All I could think
as it shattered was how it was the same shape
and size as the customer's head. And this is why
I don't believe in accidents, the grainy dregs
running like sludge down his thin tie
and pin-stripe shirt like they were channels
riven for just this purpose.

It wasn't my fault. I know that. But what, really,
was the hurry? I dabbed at his belly with a napkin.
He didn't have a cut on him (physics) and only
his earlobe was burned. But my last day there
was the first day I looked up as I walked, the trees
shimmering green lanterns under the Prussian blue
particulate sky, sun streaming between my fingers
and I waved at the bus, running, breathing hard, thinking:
This is the grand phenomenon of my body. This thirst
is mine. This is my one and only life.

Auden not withstanding ("For poetry makes nothing happen"), this poem, along with comments from another one of my poetry mentors, changed my life. Upon hearing Dorianne read it and Michael Waters say that if you're going to be a writer, be a writer full-time, I returned from the 2012 AWP conference and stepped down from a full-time management position to part-time sales in order to devote more time to writing.

Who are your poets? What are they saying to you? What are you doing about it?

Where is the lyrical in your quotidian? How will you mine it? When?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Natasha Trethewey: A Poet Laureate for our Time

(Editors note: My apologies for the unannounced several week hiatus. I am back and will be more consistent with my posts. TL)

For the time being, the poetry gods have smiled on the United States: we finally have a Poet Laureate who is at (or near--who knows how good she will get?) the peak of her powers. That she is a terrific poet (and from what I could tell of her in one ten minute conversation, probably at least as good of a human being) is a gift. And that she not only writes savory poetry, but is committed to (and actively engaged in) the teaching of it, is a blessing that we have not had in some recent Poets Laureate. I learned all of this about her (and more) attending her reading earlier this week at Stanford as part of the renowned Lane Lecture Series.

Trethewey, the Charles Howard Candler Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University, has a list of credentials, of course, as long as the stage is wide in the 500+ capacity (yet intimate) Zambrano Hall on the campus of Stanford. Her honors include, but are not limited to, Guggenheim, Rockefeller, Bunting and NEA fellowships, The Cave Canem Poetry Prize (for her first book, Domestic Work), a Pulitzer Prize (for her third book, Native Guard), and an impressive list of state and national writing awards, including her recent appointment as US Poet Laureate.

But, most importantly, her poetry is virtuosic. In Thrall, for example, her subject matter (exploration of her own interracial and complicated roots) is highly significant, being at once deeply personal (without making herself the center of a new confessionalism), and globally significant (without devolving into a dispassionate chronicle), pursuing events and narratives that have been painted over on both her family's and history's canvas, for the sake of protecting its status quo images.

"Taxonomy," for example, with the epigraph After a series of casta paintings by/Juan Rodriquez Juarez, c. 1715 begins "The canvas is a leaden sky/behind them, heavy/with words, gold letters inscribing/an equation of blood--"

On the sonic level, Trethewey's sonorous iambs frame a fresh vocabulary of the calculus of race with section titles that give the precise term for each child of several interracial unions: 1. DE ESPANOL Y DE INDIA PRODUCE MESTISO; 2. DE ESPANOL Y NEGRA PRODUCE MULATO; 3. DE ESPANOL Y MESTIZA PRODUCE CASTIZA. She writes "this plus this equals this--as if/a contract with nature, or/a museum label,/ethnographic, precise."

Add music and passion, and we could say the same for Trethewey's work: the result of a contract with the universe that brings her perfect-pitch voice to bear on score after score of skewed and sometimes hidden American stories--in order to bring them from their dim pages to our astonished and hungry ears.

I will have more to say about our new Poet Laureate in the days ahead. For now, I close with final lines from the ultimate poem in this collection: "Illumination." (My apologies for not being able to duplicate precisely the typography of indentation of every other line.)

So much is left

untold Between

the printed words and the self-conscious scrawl

between what is said and not

white space framing the story

the way the past unwritten

eludes us So much

is implication the afterimage

of measured syntax always there

ghosting the margins that words

their black-lined authority

do not cross Even

as they rise up to meet us

the white page hovers beneath

silent incendiary waiting